To Revive a Presidency

Sunday, October 30, 2005

POLITICAL COMMENTARY is addicted to bold trends: Leaders must be either up or down; sideways isn't tolerated. So it's easy to forget that, along with the implosion of the Harriet Miers candidacy for the Supreme Court, last week featured the nomination of a highly qualified candidate to head the Federal Reserve; or that, along with the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, last week brought a big step toward ending the investigation that has put a cloud over the White House for so long. Presidents have a way of bouncing back from low points, and it is too early to assume that President Bush is a lame duck.

But unquestionably Mr. Bush is in trouble, and if he is to recover, he needs to acknowledge the root causes of his misfortunes. There may be less to learn from the indictment of Mr. Libby, whose alleged perjury appears to be the result of his own miscalculations, than from some other recent stumbles. Ms. Miers's failed Supreme Court candidacy, for one, is emblematic of a broader and persistent Bush failing: a lack of intellectual seriousness, which goes hand in hand with his excessive trust in loyalists.

Mr. Bush does not have the appetite to cross-examine subordinates in detail and judge them on the quality of their advice, so he tends to appoint those with whom he feels comfortable. This has led to bad appointments -- and not only Ms. Miers and that hapless horseman who presided over federal disasters and also became one. There's Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general who is unable to state U.S. policy on cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners; one Treasury secretary who committed gaffe after gaffe and a second who is lackluster; unqualified contributors in many of the most important diplomatic posts; and more. A president who grappled seriously with the issues would surely demand better.

Mr. Bush's impatience with policy minu-

tiae also leads him to advance positions without thinking them through. He prefers to offer bold ideas over effective ones, to take credit for easy victories without making hard choices. He has cut taxes and said he wants spending to be cut, too, but his officials have no plausible scenario for how the budget can be restored to balance. He set out to reform Medicare, the most ruinous of all the entitlement programs, and ended up with a law that made it vastly more expensive. He invaded Iraq in the hope of spreading democracy through the region, among other reasons, but his officials failed to plan for reconstruction. In confronting al Qaeda, Mr. Bush rightly grasped that this was a new kind of war that demanded new ways of fighting. But he pursued that broad conviction with a counterproductive indifference to substance, taking positions on civil liberties that harmed U.S. standing and that the Supreme Court later ruled untenable.

In the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush presented himself as a leader who would set clear priorities and delegate the small stuff. The past five years demonstrate that this isn't good enough. If Mr. Bush is to revive his presidency, there can be no substitute for sweating the detail; the choices that reach the president's desk are never going to be the easy ones. A host of issues awaits his attention, from China's military buildup to militant Iran, from post-hurricane reconstruction to the recommendations from his tax commission to the Supreme Court vacancy. Each of these represents an opportunity for Mr. Bush to reassert his authority by advancing the nation's interests. But to do that he needs to grapple with hard issues in fresh, creative ways -- a challenge that may in turn require him to recruit fresh thinkers to his inner circle.


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